El Zunzuncito (Cuban Bee Hummingbird)

January 9, 2020

In “El Zunzuncito,” the poet creatively conjures the delicate majesty of the hummingbird, a creature who never fails to capture our attention and imagination. In this tightly woven poem, words have the luster of gems, evoking the jewel tones of the tiny bird while inviting us to witness a life both relatable and otherworldly. Like the poem’s namesake, these lines move, alighting on image after image, ceasing only with the poem’s arresting final stanza, an ending that left this reader breathless.

We are pleased to share “El Zunzuncito” as one of the two finalists of our Environmental Writing Prize. —Mary Luttrell


El Zunzuncito (Cuban Bee Hummingbird)

(Mellisuga helenae)

…there always exists one more beyond in the marvelous works of creation.
—Juan Lembeye, Los aves de la isla de Cuba, 1850.

The smallest bird lives on nectar,
named zunzun for the whir

of its wings, which
invisibly trace infinity.

Also zumbite (buzzer)
or trovador (troubadour).

Co-evolved with flowers,
shimmering lime to sapphire,

they can mate in mid-air.
In spring el macho’s

head and neck grow brilliant
pink-orange-reds. He joins

a lek, a band or team
that sings and competes in

intricate displays, in hoodies
like iridescent lipsticks.

Each female a prom queen
can hook up

with several machos.
She’ll still end up a single mom.

Fed on orchids and sarsaparilla,
she builds her cup-shaped nest alone

(so tiny, it can fit on a clothespin)
in calabash or cashew tree.

She gathers wool from ceiba
trees or twisted airplant,

lined with moss, down, fur.
Spider web for spandex.

She lays two eggs like white
coffee beans. Her blue-green

plumage blends in; el macho’s
gaud could give away the nest

to hawks, falcons, even
spiders. The chicks

hatch blind, naked. Dark red
turns gold, then dull

velvet with a cobalt sheen.
For protein, she hunts

mosquitoes the way hawks
do pigeons, thousands a day

till the two-inch
pichones have fledged.

Back on her liquid diet
(she weighs less than a dime)

she sips a thousand blossoms
a day of hummingbird or fire

bush, Cup of Gold or Chalice
Vine. Birds so beautiful

in the nineteenth century rich women
wore them, stuffed, on their hats.

Original Hummingbird Illustration by Claire Wilson

Illustration by artist Claire Wilson


Barbara Ungar’s Save Our Ship (Ashland Poetry Press, Nov 2019) won the Richard Snyder Memorial Prize and was named Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2019. Her chapbook, EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered), is forthcoming from Ethel in 2020. Prior books include Immortal Medusa, named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015; Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life; and The Origin of the Milky Way, which won the Gival Prize, a silver Independent Publishers award, and a Hoffer award. A professor at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, she is also the author of Haiku in English and several chapbooks. Find out more about her work at Barbaraungar.net.


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